While Russia’s involvement in Syria narrows options for the global coalition, it does not limit them. It’s time for a no-fly zone in Syria.
As deeper American involvement in the Syrian civil war appears imminent, America’s national security community needs to have the talk. What is the talk, you ask? Putin’s strategic aim in Syria is to prop up Assad and push out the international community. And it is past such time a global coalition should push back.
Over the past few weeks, prominent voices to include the serving Secretary of the Air Force, senior military officers like retired General John Allen, and respected scholars like Charles Lister have advocated deeper involvement in Syria and the imposition of a no-fly zone, precision strikes, and standoff strikes against Assad’s military forces. While they do not set national policy, the views of the above are correct, just, and the appropriate way forward.
As all successful overseas interventions illustrate, it is imperative malleable partnered forces advance our national security objectives, be trained and equipped expeditiously, and function in a politically expedient fashion. The operative words here are “politically expedient.” If a partnered force cannot deliver, it becomes difficult to demonstrate political utility to the National Command Authority. There have been both legitimate and entirely illegitimate criticisms of the efforts to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and other moderates in Syria.
But the administration has repeatedly questioned the utility of these efforts, covert and overt in a clandestine manner, because of the inherent lack of political control when mounting an unconventional warfare campaign. The obvious solution to this problem, of course, is to defer to your seasoned military strategists and intelligence community. The only problem is: those same voices have advocated again and again to provide more heavy weapons and equipment to the vetted moderate Syrian opposition inside Syria, to the chagrin of some administration figures.
This administration has, according to a telling Washington Post article, effectively punted resourcing this critical effort to the next White House. Among the proponents of providing more lethal assistance to the vetted moderate Syrian opposition are the director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. These respected statesmen should not be ignored, and we should heed their advice as the debate about what American involvement should look like moves forward into the new year. Their counsel will be needed.
Russia does not dictate American foreign policy; American political leadership does. And it has become abundantly clear Russia intends to exert political pressure and create the illusion a “shooting war” would erupt if a no-fly zone was constituted. This is unserious, and should be dismissed as the naked Kremlin talking points they are whenever encountered. Russia, while a near peer, is just that: near, and lacks the technical capacity to challenge American air dominance, disrupt our logistical lines of supply and communication, or defeat our countermeasures. It is Russia, not the United States, that should fear American intervention in Syria.
In parallel to the train and equip effort, America should synchronize and execute standoff and precision strikes on Assad’s military headquarters, Presidential guard barracks, command and control nodes, and any materiel and aircraft seen with the naked eye. Due to anti-aircraft platforms provided by Russia to Assad’s forces, it will be necessary for a global coalition to employ electronic attack, special technical operations, and national-level platforms exclusive to United States Armed Forces.
While it is true Russia has provided state of the art anti-air emplacements to the Syria government, these systems are not impervious to electronic warfare, special technical operations, and national-level cyber capabilities of the United States Armed Forces. This is particularly true of our Navy, Air Force, and special operations aviation community elements who have practiced to defeat just such an adversary for over two decades.
While it would be inappropriate for any party to delineate in an unclassified forum, the United States and its international partners possess the capability to decisively, unfairly, and creatively defeat any countermeasure on or across the electromagnetic spectrum. These traditional military activities would be in addition to Title 50 offensive cyber effects operations. Syria depends on Russia and Iran to conduct barrel bombings from the air. We can own the sky in Syria. It is incorrect to assert otherwise, and while those debates should take place in classified forums and channels it remains irresponsible to claim America would falter in this regard.
The United States is not limited by the contours of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and Presidents present or future have a range of options under Article II of the Constitution and Titles 10, 22, and 50 of the US Code. Traditional military activities have been given a wider purview over the last two administrations, in large part due to equity management by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It is far past time senior leaders and their staffs acknowledge the political imperative: Assad must go. Errant feelings, reservations, or thoughts about why Assad must go do not matter so much as achieving this objective and moving out smartly. What the National Command Authority directs, servicemembers do. And the United States Armed Forces is without peer.
This is not to imply or suggest insubordination or a perceived rupture in civil military relations. Many other professional militaries predate our own, and they all struggled internally over the politically expedient versus the strategically and tactically ideal. As our national security commitments necessitate overt intervention in the Syrian war, policy execution staff should look to execute American policy abroad in concert with a global coalition looking to secure Syria and establish humanitarian corridors. Now is not the time for impediments.
The political climate is becoming increasingly supportive of overt and clandestine traditional military activities in Syria, beyond the scope of past and present compartmented efforts as reported widely in the media. Just as the flag and general officers did with Desert Storm and Anaconda, today’s generation of officers predicate their decisions on their experiences and the political climate of the time. The political climate demands a set of options that enables the President to hold Assad accountable. The interagency to include the Pentagon has demonstrated resolve and presented a set of options to the political leadership that afford maximum optionality. The time for excuses is over. The well has run dry. It is now time to act, or to abdicate our leadership role on the world stage.
As General Allen and Mr. Lister so eloquently put it in their Washington Post editorial:
It is time for the United States to act more assertively on Syria, to further four justifiable objectives: to end mass civilian killing; to protect what remains of the moderate opposition; to undermine extremist narratives of Western indifference to injustice; and to force Assad to the negotiating table. The United States should not be in the business of regime change, but the Assad clique and its backers must be brought to account before it is too late. The world will not forgive us for our inaction.
The Syrian opposition, the brave souls in Aleppo, and the international community all await our answer.
The above, adapted from Fortune Favors The Bold: Principled Leadership In A New American Century, has been separated from the deliverable with the express permission of the client.